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Drought Endangers Millions in East Africa

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By Michael Hill

Hunger and the threat of malnutrition are becoming the daily reality for millions of people in East Africa. A lack of rainfall and rising food prices are increasingly straining their food supply, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) staff members in the region are reporting.

"Rains last fall failed completely," says CRS Africa Team Leader Brian Gleeson. "And spring rains earlier this year were erratic and weak. As a result, farmers have experienced horrible harvests and pastoralists are seeing their livestock dying off."

CRS and partners are ramping up a response that will help 1 million people avoid malnutrition and even starvation.

This drought -- it's been one of the driest years in the region since 1950 to 1951 -- has combined with increased food costs to put 10 million people across the Horn of Africa in need of humanitarian assistance. Most live in Kenya and Ethiopia, countries where CRS has worked for decades.

Many CRS programs in these countries have been focusing on water and agriculture over the past several months to alleviate the growing drought conditions.

But now Kenya is being burdened further by an influx of tens of thousands of refugees from Somalia; most are striking out in search of food because dangers in Somalia limit humanitarian outreach. CRS staff members are visiting a large and growing refugee camp in Dadaab in eastern Kenya and in surrounding communities that are hosting refugees. Staff there are determining food, water and sanitation needs.

In Ethiopia, the CRS-led Joint Emergency Operational Plan is ramping up. Now feeding 400,000 people, it should reach 1 million beginning this month.

Other CRS staff, including the Nairobi-based Emergency Response Team, are working with Caritas Internationalis, government authorities and other partners to design further responses.

"This drought comes as prices for staple foods are increasing -- in some cases, more than doubling in the past year," Gleeson says.

Many already spend a huge percentage of their income on food. A rise in prices pushes them over the edge.

"These price increases strike particularly hard in urban areas, where people must purchase all their food," Gleeson says. "In non-drought conditions, rural farmers often benefit from rising food prices because they can sell their crops for higher prices. But, right now they have no crops to sell due to the drought. So they and their families are also hurting."

Gleeson says that the crisis will likely worsen before it eases with the October harvest.

"Many areas had very poor spring rains, so the harvest will not be enough," he says. "And if the fall rains are not strong -- or fail again -- then this crisis is going to get much, much worse."

Michael Hill is senior communications manager at CRS headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland.